Frank Capra

Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success

by Joseph McBride
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 800
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  • Book Info
    Frank Capra
    Book Description:

    Moviegoers often assume Frank Capra's life resembled his beloved films (such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life). A man of the people faces tremendous odds and, by doing the right thing, triumphs! But as Joseph McBride reveals in this meticulously researched, definitive biography, the reality was far more complex, a true American tragedy. Using newly declassified U.S. government documents about Capra's response to being considered a possible "subversive" during the post-World War II Red Scare, McBride adds a final chapter to his unforgettable portrait of the man who gave us It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, and Meet John Doe.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-839-1
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. 1-6)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. 7-8)
  3. 1. “I felt nothing”
    (pp. 9-28)

    Six thousand people, virtually all the inhabitants of the Sicilian village of Bisacquino, met the old man on the highway half a mile from town. He had not seen his birthplace in almost seventy-four years, and he was stunned by the sincerity and fervor of this homecoming welcome. He remembered almost nothing of Bisacquino—running barefoot through the dusty town square; a ride on his father’s mule through a mountain stream, waiting while the animal bowed its head to drink; a starkly contrasted image of black peasant hats against glaring white walls on a hot August afternoon; little more. Sicily...

  4. 2. “I hated America”
    (pp. 29-48)

    The immensity of the ocean, the boy would later say, “drove everything else out of my head.”

    The ocean crossing was a rebirth for Francesco Capra. America would write his story afresh. It was the first and most radical of the character transformations he would undergo in his lifetime, and, he admitted, “It scared the hell out of me.”

    His memory of the ship crossing always remained extraordinarily vivid, so much so that he would speak of it often in the present tense, as if for the rest of his life he was, in some profound sense, always on that...

  5. 3. “A terrible wop”
    (pp. 49-68)

    The idea Miss McDaniel planted in Frank Capra’s brain became an obsession. He still had no idea what he would become, but he now saw clearly that education was the one thing that would keep him from spending his life on the railroad tracks or in a brickyard. He overcame his parents’ reluctance to his further schooling by promising to pay his own expenses if they would let him go on to high school.

    In 1909, when Frank was still in sixth grade, there were only two high schools in Los Angeles. The older and more prestigious was Los Angeles...

  6. 4. “Cap”
    (pp. 69-102)

    “He changed his whole viewpoint on life, from the viewpoint of an alley rat to the viewpoint of a cultured person.”

    With those words, written in the third person for a 1929 self-portrait, Frank Capra summed up the experience of his college years at Throop College of Technology in Pasadena.

    Pasadena, it was said in those days, was where people from Los Angeles went when they died. Only an hour’s trolley ride from downtown Los Angeles, the small winter resort town in the San Gabriel Valley, with its orange groves, stately homes, luxury hotels, and transplanted eastern culture, was as...

  7. 5. “I’m from Hollywood”
    (pp. 103-138)

    Still recovering from his shock at being mustered into the regular Army as a private on October 18, 1918, Capra found himself not in European combat but at the Presidio at picturesque Fort Point on San Francisco Bay, headquarters of the coast defenses. He was one of 2,500 prospective officers from eleven western states crammed into the Enlisted Specialists’ Preparatory School. From reveille at 5:30 a.m. to taps at 10 p.m., they studied tactics and weaponry, practiced with artillery, and trained in trench warfare with bayonets, hand grenades, and machine guns.

    Capra said that to take advantage of his scientific...

  8. 6. The Gag Man
    (pp. 139-180)

    “If there is any shortcut to fame and fortune in motion pictures, it is as a gag man,” Capra wrote in 1927. “Here you may jump to the top overnight, after the short probationary period, which is long enough to show you whether you have the stuff that makes gag men.”

    Capra did not “jump to the top overnight,” but his period as a Hollywood gag man between 1924 and 1927 was, indeed, a formative and decisive step in his career. He started with the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City. When Capra was working on the lot for $75...

  9. 7. “Marrying the harlot”
    (pp. 181-218)

    Capra regarded the picture he made in New York, which was released asFor the Love of Mike, as the worst of his career (it is now a lost film). A comedy about three New York ethnics (a Jewish tailor, a Dutch delicatessen owner, and an Irish street cleaner) who adopt a baby and raise him together, putting him through Yale, it starred Ben Lyon as Mike, with George Sidney, Ford Sterling, and Hugh Cameron as his godfathers. Other elements in the commercial formula were action (the Yale regatta, filmed on location) and romantic comedy (in the person of Claudette...

  10. 8. “The Man in the Street”
    (pp. 219-246)

    Capra’s rise to fame and material success stemmed from America’s descent into the Great Depression, as he somewhat uncomfortably assumed the role of Hollywood’s champion of the “common man.”

    He shared his peasant family’s thrifty habits and their instinctual distrust of banks. While making his prudent Hollywood and Malibu land investments in the late 1920s, he kept his extra money in safe-deposit boxes and hoarded at home. As a hedge against the instability of the world currency market, he converted some of his holdings into gold. After his years of struggling, he was not one to squander his savings on...

  11. 9. American Madness
    (pp. 247-288)

    While Capra was on his honeymoon, Robert Riskin was putting the finishing touches on an original screenplay calledFaith.

    The subject was a bold and timely one: a run on a bank. More than 3,600 American banks had failed since the end of 1929, one fifth of all the banks in the country, with deposits totaling more than $2.5 billion. In March of 1932, as Columbia putFaithinto production, faith in the American economic system was a scarce commodity indeed. The Bank Holiday proclaimed by President Roosevelt and his dramatic overhaul of the banking system were a year away;...

  12. 10. “The catastrophe of Success”
    (pp. 289-326)

    It was just a few days before the start of shooting onMadame La Gimp. “Harry,” Capra told Cohn when they met at the studio, “I want you to face the fact that you’re spending three hundred thousand dollars on a picture in which the heroine is seventy years old.”

    Cohn rose from his desk and stared out his window onto Gower Street. Then he turned back to Capra: “All I know is the thing’s got a wallop. Go ahead.”

    Thus was madeLady for a Day, the first film for which Capra received an Academy Award nomination for best...

  13. 11. “A sense of responsibility”
    (pp. 327-350)

    “Something to say” was proving elusive.

    Before his illness, Capra had been thinking of making a musical. His thoughts went to the opera star Grace Moore, a surprise success in Columbia’s 1934One Night of Love. After the visit from the little man, however, such a project may have seemed too fluffy for “The World’s Foremost Director.”

    The first project announced for Capra when he made his abortive return to the studio in February 1935 was an adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s playValley Forge. The inspirational saga of George Washington’s refusal to surrender to the snow and the Redcoats appealed...

  14. 12. “The doghouse”
    (pp. 351-374)

    Lost Horizonwas a colossal act of hubris, a self-inflicted wound that caused lasting damage to Capra’s career.

    The man who claimed in 1985 that he had “nevergone over budget—not one penny” shot for ten months and spent $2,026,337.01 of Columbia’s money ($776,337.01 in excess of the original budget authorized by Harry Cohn) producing a film that took more than five years to earn back its cost, which, including prints and advertising, came to $2,626,620, by far the most Columbia had ever spent on a film. TheLost Horizondebacle caused a grave financial crisis for the studio,...

  15. 13. “Columbia’s Gem”
    (pp. 375-400)

    Before July 1937, when the producers agreed to hold contract talks with the Screen Directors Guild, the guild had been limping along with a membership of only ninety directors, but that month another seventy-one agreed to come aboard, including Frank Capra.

    Capra signed his membership application on August 8, eighteen months after the formation of the SDG. Despite his later claim that “I wouldn’t put the Academy above the Directors Guild, because that wouldn’t be kosher,” his six prior years of promanagement activity with the Academy had helped the studios stall recognition of the actors’, writers’, and directors’ guilds. But...

  16. 14. “My ancestors couldn’t; I can”
    (pp. 401-424)

    The film Capra and Cohn chose to end their twelve years of partnership wasMr. Smith Goes to Washington.

    It began with a screen story by Lewis R. Foster called “The Gentleman from Montana,” the story of the disillusionment of a wide-eyed idealist after his appointment to the United States Senate. Columbia producer William Perlberg had optioned it in 1937, but Cohn decided against making the film after the Production Code Administration, run by Joseph I. Breen, expressed its disapproval. When renewed interest was shown by Paramount and MGM, Breen responded in January 1938 by criticizing Foster’s “general unflattering portrayal...

  17. 15. “We’re the front office”
    (pp. 425-452)

    Never did Capra have it so good again. His twelve years at Columbia, which ended in October 1939, were the most productive of his life. The freedom he craved would turn out to be a subtle trap.

    At the time his options seemed unlimited. In his last months at Columbia, there was great competition in Hollywood for Capra’s services, studio offers in which “the financial obligations run into millions,” as his would-be partner David 0. Selznick put it. The most attractive offers were the ones that seemed to promise the most creative freedom and independence within the Hollywood system—offers...

  18. 16. “That fellow Capra”
    (pp. 453-502)

    “Most of you were individuals in civilian life,” Capra wrote the officers under his command in 1942. “Forget that. You are working for a common cause. Your personal egos and idiosyncrasies are unimportant. There will be no personal credit for your work, either on the screen or in the press. The only press notices we are anxious to read are those of American victories!”

    The films Capra produced during his Army service in World War II, including theWhy We Fightseries of troop indoctrination films, won him great praise and honor, yet his own name never appeared on the...

  19. 17. Liberty
    (pp. 503-534)

    “It’s frightening to go back to Hollywood after four years, wondering whether you’ve gone rusty or lost touch,” Capra admitted to Tom Pryor ofThe New York Timesin November 1945. “I keep telling myself how wonderful it would be just to sneak out somewhere and make a couple of quickie Westerns first—just to get the feel of things again.”

    The postwar security he craved could be found only under studio contract, but Capra found it necessary to pretend otherwise. In an article he wrote for theTimessix months later, Capra insisted that he was “willing to gamble...

  20. 18. “I have no cause”
    (pp. 535-560)

    “And so, here and now, I withdraw as a candidate for any office—not because I’m honest, but because I’m dishonest. I want to apologize to all the good, sincere people who put their faith in me. …”

    Those words, which were written for the film, were spoken by Spencer Tracy at the end ofState of the Union, Capra’s elegy for his abandonment of socially conscious filmmaking.State of the Unionwas a pale reflection of Capra’s greatness as a filmmaker, sapped as it was by the same fears and lack of moral commitment which fatally compromise his protagonist,...

  21. 19. “The Judas pain”
    (pp. 561-610)

    There was more to Capra’s malaise than his budget fights with Paramount.

    He had been running for cover politically since learning of the “innuendo campaign” against him in late 1946 or early 1947. He cryptically admitted in his book that in 1947, “I began to act strangely, to look for ‘villains.’ ” That year he lost his “courage” and his “soul stopped leaping upward.” The intervening years, with HUAC, the Motion Picture Alliance, and other witch-hunting groups gradually assuming total control over Hollywood’s thinking, were a time of dread for Capra.

    His public line for years had been to trumpet...

  22. 20. A Reputation
    (pp. 611-656)

    Thoreau wrote of his bean field that it “attached me to the earth, and so I got strength like Antaeus.” Capra hoped Red Mountain Ranch would do the same for him, but his posh version of Walden Pond proved to be as frustrating as Hollywood.

    “When Capra quit the picture business, he was going to be The Land Owner down here,” said Chet Sticht, who followed him reluctantly to Fallbrook in 1951. “That lasted about two and a half years. Watching trees grow is not too exciting. Hell, you can’t suddenly quit something you’ve been doing and come down here...

  23. Appendix “A Pretty Grim and Bitter Pay-Off”: Additional Information on Capra’s Security Clearance Crisis from Newly Released U.S. Government Files
    (pp. 657-688)
  24. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 689-698)
    Joseph McBride
  25. Notes on Sources
    (pp. 699-748)
  26. Filmography
    (pp. 749-762)
  27. INDEX
    (pp. 763-798)
  28. Back Matter
    (pp. 799-800)
  29. [Illustrations]
    (pp. 801-824)